Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Out of My Mind

An original photo of my 11 year old
It was New Year's Eve 1975-76, and I had just turned 11 years old about a month and a half before. The new year was going to be, the US bicentennial! News commentators had been talking it up for months, and I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new, more exciting year. At about 10 pm the grown-ups were sitting around a large heavily carved dining room table at my aunt and uncle's house. They were drinking a rare wine from crystal goblets. My uncle, the gourmet chef, had brought up something very special from his wine collection in the cellar for the occaision. The stories the grown-ups told produced great, booming belly laughs but were not for children's ears. We three children were in a sepperate small study watching TV and waiting for something magical to happen, something that would define one year from the next, something that would make everything new and different.

My sister, who is five years older than I, disappeared into the kitchen and returned with an important secret. She motioned to me "Com'ere, com'ere, shhhh! We're going to go outside for a minute." I wasn't really interested in going outside into the mid-winter cold, but she grabbed my arm and pulled me over. Then she lifted the corner of a napkin she was carrying and showed me one chocolaty brownie hiding inside. We left my 8 year old brother in front of the TV and slipped out of the front door into the icy cold to munch on the brownie.

"Is it the last brownie?" I was trying to figure out why we had to sneak outside to eat a brownie, and why weren't we sharing with our brother?

"No," she said. "Auntie gave me a brownie with hash in it."

"What!" My eyes just about bugged out of my head. This was a new and different! I had heard about drugs. They were bad. I knew that we weren't supposed to have them. But my persuasive sister, who was pretty good at pushing my 'dorky little sister' buttons, had had marijuana before. She told me that it would be really fun. In truth, it didn't take much convincing. It was, after all, a brownie from my uncle's house, and everything he made was a treat.

I took my half of the brownie and ate it the way I usually ate brownies, shoving most of it into my mouth all at once. What a disappointment! It was full of twigs, kind of chewy, and not very flavorful.

"Now, we'll go inside and watch cartoons, it'll be really funny!" she said.

I sat down in an easy chair in front of the TV with my sister and brother, only a little worried that I might get into trouble, but nothing happened at first. Then my dad came in and sat down with us and I started to worry a lot more. I started to feel a little out of control, like my brain and body weren't connected in quite the way that they should be. The cartoons were not becoming funnier, I just couldn't follow them any more. There was a delay in my reactions. If I turned my head, the visual image turned more slowly in a disjointed way. This was not funny. This was very disturbing. I became more and more concerned that one of the grown-ups would be able to see that something was wrong with me, so I got up to go to bed. But as I passed the dining room door, my mother saw me and called me over to her.

"Butternut, Butternut, I need you to come here for a minute." Oh no! She's going to see that something is wrong with me, I thought. I walked over to her, concentrating very hard on being normal and not looking directly at her. "Butternut, I want you to look into my eyes." she said.

I'm sunk. She knows. This is the beginning of the worst year ever! I am going to die of embarrassment. The family will start to scream at each other, blame will be tossed around, and I will be sent to a school for juvenile delinquents. Always the obedient child, I looked very carefully into my mother's eyes.

"Do I look drunk?" she asked me. What? She doesn't know! I'm saved. What a relief.

My mother rarely drank alcohol, but her face was flushed, and her eyes were at half mast. She looked happy and dizzy at the same time. "No! you look fine," I lied. "I'm really tired. I'm going to bed," I said. I made a hasty exit to the bedroom. No longer interested in ringing in the bicentennial, I spent my evening worrying that someone might come to check on me and discover the secret. Guilt, shame, and paranoia spun around the room as I fell asleep.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lost In Perfection

Under miles of wires
an ocean of grass
no weed but a seed
of prairies long passed

A personal thought
let slip away
retelling the tales
of ordinary days

On circles on circles
Round we all mow
In search of reminders
Of things we let go

Rambling thoughts
Like imperfect flowers
Warm fragrant forrests
And leisurely hours

by Butternut Squash
I will be gone for a few days. I have to go make a living. Be well and know that I am thinking of you even if I am not able to write to you. Peace.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Dream A World of Good, Part 2

A few months passed before I heard from the cricket team I was sponsoring in Nepal, then I received a lovely photo of the team with all of their new equipment and everyone in a white T-shirt that said, A World of Good, Inc. The former head man's eldest son wrote to me with his thanks and kept in touch to let me know how things were going in Nepal.

Things were not going at all well in Nepal. The difficulties with the government became worse. The king was losing control and started to arrest members of the Parliament, 'for their protection,' he said. I cannot take sides on these issues--it is not my place and I have friends on opposite sides of the issues. But I can tell you that friends of mine were being squeezed from both sides. If they cooperated with the Maoists the Government could arrest them. At the same time, Moaist representatives would come to people's homes or shops and say you must give us money or we will hurt members of your family. Anyone with a little money or the perception of power was in danger. Bombs went off in the business district and strikes were constant. Tourism began to dry up and shops were failing.

The following year I returned to Nepal to visit my suppliers. It was the off season, but even so I had never seen it like that before. The tourist area of Nepal looked like a ghost town. Again, while I was there, there was a strike and I found myself throwing pebbles at a suppliers window to let him know that I was down below and wanted to come up to shop. (Go back to The One Eyed Monkey of Swayambu to read about strikes.)

The headman's two sons invited me to come to see them play cricket, and since I couldn't get much work done anyway, I followed them down dusty streets past cows and goats to a large flat area near a river. We walked straight toward a brick wall that seemed to go on for about a quarter of a mile and had no door. The brick wall ended perpendicular to the river bed. There was a sheer drop about 30 feet to the rocks below. The boys told me to hang on to the end of the wall and swing one foot around to the other side. I felt like a kid again sneaking through the neighbors garden to take a dip in a forbidden pool. On the other side of the wall was a great expanse of flat ground with a few blades of grass. I could see several areas where cricket games were taking place.

I saw our team right away because many of the boys were wearing the shirts that I had given them. Up close the shirts looked a bit shabby, and one of the boys told me that was the only shirt he had. I have a hard time understanding comments like that. Did he really mean that it was the only shirt he had or the only shirt he had to play in?

The boys suited me up in their new equipment, a face mask, pads and a bat. I was raised on baseball and had never watched a game of cricket before. Did you know that games can last 8 hours a day for up to 5 days! Anyway, they laughed at me trying to hit the ball and we had fun.

When I left Nepal this time the two brothers promised to keep writing to me. And they kept their promise. A few months later, I received another note from the headman's eldest son. Their father's shop was failing and he and his brother were going to drop out of school and go to work. At that time, the brothers were about 11 and 13 and if you read the first part of this story, you know that school is why the gentle headman left his village to come to Kathmandu in the first place. It was a very sad situation.

My husband and I struggled with this for a little while. Wealth is a matter of perspective, we don't think of ourselves as wealthy, yet we can clothe and feed our own children and send them to a public school. So, we have enough. I asked around to see if anyone I knew would be willing to sponsor these kids through school, but no one was volunteering. Really, who would? Who is any closer to these boys than we are. So I wrote them back, "You need school more than cricket. If your father can provide everything else for you, we will pay for the education." That was how we came to have "nephews" in Nepal.

*There are so many kids in this world with needs. Unicef, Feed The Children, Nepalese Youth Opportunities are doing great things. If you feel compelled to help, you can even go to your local community center or school and teach a child to read.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dream A World of Good, Part One

My Friend in His Shop in Kathmandu

A Shaman's Mask

A very gentle headman lived in a small village, high on the Himalayan mountainside. After his children were born, he began to have ambitions, not for himself, but for his children. The headman gave up his position and status, much to the surprise of the other villagers, to travel to Kathmandu. This was because, at that time, there was not a suitable school for his boys in his village, so he moved them to the large city and opened a very small shop.

His shop carried the most unusual carved statues, butter churns, tantric drums, phurbas, shaman masks, ceremonial shell horns, old coins and other odd objects. I had visited his shop on a few different occasions looking for the more unusual items to sell to my more unusual customers. When the former headman asked me if I would like to come to his home for dinner, I was honored.

His young wife and two boys were beautiful and charming. They offered me many types of spicy vegetable dishes and they began to tell me stories of their village. They told me ghost stories, which I always enjoy. They told me a story about the time that the King of Nepal came to their village. On the wall there was a picture of their father with the King. They read me lovely Hindu prayers. And then the boys explained how they had started a cricket team with other boys in the neighborhood. They said that they didn't have all of the equipment they needed, but the boys shared what they had. And that gave me an idea: Wouldn't it be fun if I could sponsor their cricket team!

The boys' father agreed to arrange for shirts to be made for all the boys in the neighborhood and I would pay for the shirts and the equipment that they needed. They would later send me a photo of all of the boys wearing T-shirts that said, "A World of Good, Inc."

That night after the dinner, I went to bed thinking about the lovely dinner and the boys and their cricket team. At about 3:00am I sat bolt upright in bed. I had had a very powerful dream about making rings for all of the boys on the cricket team. The next morning, I went to a silversmith that I work with and I had silver rings made for each of the boys on the team. The phrase "ONE GOOD DEED" was inscribed inside each ring. Just before I left to return to the United States, I gave the rings to the boys and I asked them to do one good deed for someone else and to pass the ring on to them giving the next person the same instruction. I flew home imagining these boys as my knights spreading chivalrous deeds around the Kingdom of Nepal.

* is undergoing a web host change and may be difficult to view for a while.

Monday, April 13, 2009

La Meme

Below are objects that remind me of people I love.

Manjushri Compassion for the world. Click on it, the detail is amazing.

Baby Tenders to protect my two boys.

My Husband's Guitar.

The day that she passed, my mother sat here holding my first born who was three days old.

A Meme, or Me! Me!

This one is courtesy of Elizabeth at About New York and sometimes other places.

What are your current obsessions?
My son tells me it's the blog. I would say, it is the developing story.

Which item from your closet are you wearing most often?
A sweater.

What's for dinner?
Leftover Arugula salad, a protein thing, a starch and strawberries. I'll figure it out at the grocery store.

Last thing you bought?
Books as gifts to my family and friends.

What are you listening to?
The incessant noise of the Pokemon game on game boy DS.

Say something to the person who tagged you.
Hello Elizabeth, love those photos, you rock.

Favorite vacation spots.
I travel so much that home is my vacation spot.

Reading right now?
I usually have a few going at once. Among Flowers, A walk in the Himalaya by Jamaica Kincaid. I just finished Learning to Breathe by Alison Wright and I absolutely loved St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell.

4 words to describe yourself.
This is what my boys say: Number 1 son says, Hard Working, Caring, Smart, Fun
Number 2 son says, Happy, Nice, Good and Lovey. (not lovely)

Guilty pleasure.
Dark Chocolate.

First spring thing?
Flying Kites.

Planning to travel to next?
Virginia Beach, VA, for work.

Best thing you ate or drank lately?
Apple pie that I bought from my Mennonite neighbor's shed.

What spring flower are you most anxious to see?
Lilacs and Azaleas

Care to share some wisdom?
Laugh everyday, especially when you are worried or afraid.
I would like to pass this Meme along to anyone who is interested in sharing more about themselves. I also received the Friends award and Proximidade award from Life in the Second Half. You can find them in the column on the right. I would also like to extend these to those who would enjoy them. Pass them on it's a really good feeling to receive one. Here are just a few of the many blogs that I regularly enjoy: My son's really cool pictures around our farm. Exceptional Poet. A connoisseur of all fine things. A guide to living passionately. Incredible photo adventures. New York, Artful images and fun! Wise Woman of Washington, DC Masterful Teller of Tales

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Eye of the Beholder

Our Back Yard

About a year and a half ago, we moved from within the beltway around Washington, DC, to rural central Pennsylvania. Most of our neighbors here are Amish or Mennonite. We don't interact with the neighbors much, not because we haven't tried, but they go to different schools and their lives revolve around a different church so we just don't come in contact with one another much. Our nearest neighbor is about a quarter mile down our driveway.

The public school where our children are attending is about a 3 mile bus ride from our home. Our first real shock coming to this area was that the public school asked us to sign a release form so that our 4th grader could be sent for his 'religious education' at the Lutheran church during the middle of the school day once a week. The alternative to sending him to church was to let him sit in a classroom by himself for an hour. I had to meditate on this situation for a day.

In the community where we lived before, this practice could not have been tolerated. There were people from all over the world with many different religions going to the public schools. In fact, when I told my friend in Silver Spring, Maryland, about the practice of sending the kids for a religious education during school hours, she said that it was completely against the law and that she as a member of the ACLU would call someone for me right away. I asked her not to.

Of course we are outsiders here, and a fight is not how we had planned to spend our time in the countryside. If we were living in any other country for a year, I would relax and observe the customs and religions of that area without any difficulty. I would never tell them how they ought to live their lives. I have attended ceremonies and rituals of Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Jewish and other traditions. Somehow, although my husband and I are Christian (surprise to those of you who thought we were not), we found this particular proposition of a religious education in a Luthern church to be very threatening. I think that it was the real potential for my 4th grader to internalize religious doctrine that we hadn't been able to hear and consider first, and that we might not agree with. This disturbed us.

My experience with most religion is that it varies wildly depending on the particular culture of the area. There are enormous differences among Hindu and Buddhist sects and perhaps even more differences among Christian denominations such as Pentecostals, Baptists, Unitarians, Amish and Catholics. These Christian groups all trace their roots to the teachings of Christ, however, I have been in some churches that never mention Jesus Christ by name and others that have said you should not read the Bible for yourself lest ye be corrupted by the devil in your own mind.

Our solution was to submit a proposal that our son be released to me for that same hour once a week. When I went in to the school office, I could see that the principal was defensive and braced for trouble. He told me that 'release time' was all right because the children were being released to the church and the education was not happening on school property. He even said, "This is a very religious area." I chose not to argue about how demeaning a statement that was. Can you imagine a Buddhist who travels for years on pilgrimages, prostrating their body mile, after mile, after mile, with stones of prayers on their heads being considered not very religious? I think that the principal was relieved at our solution to have my son released to me, although he did say that I must submit a formal proposal to the school administrators of how I would spend my 4th grader's time, "Because, after all, it is the school day."

When I arrived at school to pick up my son, all of his classmates went in single file to the church looking back occasionally at my son and me as we went to the coffee shop, which was also the hair dresser's. My son said that it was a little embarrassing and that some of the kids were asking him about what we did together. The most difficult question to answer from my son was, "What are we?" What I told him is that we are 'Divinely Ecumenical.' We believe in everyone's right to practice their own religion so long as it is not hateful and does not harm others. We also believe strongly in the separation of religion and state.

Spending this time with my child was a luxury that I know most families could not have because most parents do not have a flexible work schedule, but I am very glad that we had that opportunity. I wish that same opportunity for every parent and child to explore their own beliefs and where they came from. Indeed our time together was a divine gift. We spent our time reading Gombrich's A Little History of the World which not only tells the history of the world, but it also gives a lovely introduction to every major religion as it comes up throughout history, from the Egyptian worship of Osiris and Isis to Islam. It was written in the early 20th century by a Jewish man living in pre-Nazi Germany. Mr. Gombrich was able to address each religion with great respect, pointing out the positive aspects of each. -A Wonderful read if you have the time.

At the coffee shop/hair dresser's, one of the beauticians came back to me one day and said, "We were talking about you the other day." That was not much of a surprise, considereing it was the only hairdresser's or coffee shop in a very small town and we were having our lessons in public. She continued, "We were wondering why it is that we are the only school in the area that sends our children to release time?" I didn't have an answer for her.

I am really not opposed to religious education. In fact, I think that it is necessary in order to make sense of the world. I only hope that it is well balanced and in historical context with a discussion of both the good and bad aspects of religions. However, "fair and balanced" is in the eye of the beholder.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The One-Eyed Monkey of Swayambhu; for my boys

Bishow in the white cap.

Butternut Squash with baby monkeys.

Once, when you were very young, I journeyed to Kathmandu, Nepal, as I sometimes do, to search for the silver rings set with jewels, precious golden-faced statues, tantric drums and ceremonial horns, and all of the other exotic treasures that we sell to our customers. Back in those days there was a king who ruled the country, but his subjects were very poor, and this caused a great disturbance throughout the land. A group of people, who called themselves the Maoists, opposed the king and they would regularly call for strikes to show their anger toward the King's government. On strike days, it was forbidden to travel by vehicle or to open a shop to sell anything. If a person did open their shop, supporters of the Maoists would come and threaten them. They might destroy the shop or demand money from the shop and if one was to travel by vehicle, it was certain that someone would pick up a rock and throw it at the vehicle and then others would pick up rocks and throw them, until that person would have to stop and walk if they still could.

I knew that a strike had been called and, not wanting to lose one of the precious few days that I had to hunt for treasures in that kingdom, I made arrangements with my friend Bishow to walk to Swayambunath from my hotel. Bishow, who was a loyal companion to me when I visited Kathmandu, had first to walk several miles from his village of Patan to meet me at my hotel. He got up very early and when he arrived we had a nice breakfast of eggs and toast with marmalade and roasted tomatoes and garlic and a small pot of hot coffee with boiled milk and lots of sugar before we set off for our long walk to Swayambunath.

Swayambunath is the spiritual heart of the Kathmandu valley. The people of the valley say that, long, long ago, before the written word, so long ago that all you ever hear is 'in the primordial past,' there was a great lake in the circular shape of a mandala where dwelt the serpent king Kartonag. This was long before the birth of the Gautama Buddha, it was in the time of the Vipaswi Buddha. The Vipaswi Buddha came to the lake and said magic words and threw a lotus root into it. He said that when the lotus blossomed, swayambu, the Self-Existent One, would spontaneously reveal itself as flames of five colours from the lotus. And it happened that when the root took hold and grew and blossomed, another Buddha, the Sikhi Buddha, came and sat down to meditate by the lake. Sikhi Buddha plunged into the water and was absorbed in the spirit of the Self-Existent One. Many years later, Visambhu Buddha arrived at the lake. He prophesied, "A Bodhisattva shall come and let the water out of the lake and this will become a wonderful place to live and a place for pilgrims and tourists. And one day it happened. The Bodhisattva Manjushri heard about this mystical lake of the Self-Existent One. He journeyed from his home in China and with his sword he cut through the hill at Chobar gorge and drained the lake into the Bagmati river. The stupa of Swayambunath is at the top of the hill where the lotus first took root and flowered and burst into colorful flames.

Swayambu also has another name, 'The Monkey Temple.' This is because monkeys live all over the hill where the stupa is. The monkeys usually sit peacefully picking through each others fur, or scavenging for food among the leaves. Sometimes pilgrims or villagers come and feed the monkeys which causes the monkeys to chase one another around noisily, especially if they think that one of their friends has found a tasty morsel and isn't sharing it.

My companion Bishow and I had a happy long walk on a beautiful warm day to the foot of the hill of Swayambunath. We had come to find the stone carvers who are usually all up and down and around the 300 steps that lead to the stupa at the top. Buddhist pilgrims who take long journeys to important Buddhist holy places will often carve prayers into stones that they find along their journey. I have seen them carrying large stones on their heads as they travel to a temple, and when they arrive they place the stone as a tribute to their faith somewhere near the stupa. On each stone is usually written the mantra, "Om Mani Padme Hum," which means " A Jewel in a Lotus," and this is the most common expression of Buddhist enlightenment.

It was not long after tourists arrived at Swayambu that the stones began to disappear from the stupa. And soon the entrepreneurs who lived in the area started a new kind of business. The stone carvers who lived near the stupa were some of the poorest of the poor in the Kingdom. With nothing to sell but rocks, they took nails and carved stones that they found on the ground or in the river bed. Then with a marker, they decorated the prayers, and they began to sell their prayer stones to the treasure hunters, like myself. Bishow and I climbed step over step and every stone carver we met had a more beautifully carved stone than the one before. And the higher we went the more spectacular the carved images of compassionate eyes and Buddha, and dragons, all with the mantra inscribed on the back. Finally about 200 steps up we had a large bag full of heavy prayer stones which Bishow generously carried for me.

It was at this time that I caught sight of a large old monkey with bushy gray hair and only one good eye. That ugly monkey was looking at us, and then at me. When our eyes met, I knew right away that he had spotted our bag and must have thought that something very tasty could be in that bag. So I turned to Bishow and said quietly, "Put down the bag." But Bishow does not always understand what I say and so he pulled the bag closer to his body and held it more tightly. The one eyed-monkey got mad at me for apparently not wanting to share with him. Before I took another step, he ran over and grabbed my thigh just above my knee and gave me a good hard bite. That made me mad. I raised my hand and smacked that monkey on the side of his head, very hard on his ear. He took off running into the woods. Bishow and I stood for a moment looking at the blood dripping down my leg.

Bishow was dreadfully concerned for my well being. "Monkey has poison on the tooth," he said. So when we got to the top of the steps we sat down and he decided that he must try to suck the poison out of my leg. I was not so sure that this was a good idea, but he was so concerned and so persistent, that I let him try to suck the blood from my leg. You must understand that it is a sin for a Hindu man to sit next to a married woman. For him to lift my short skirt and put his lips to the bare leg of a married woman must have been an awful sin.

When I stopped bleeding, we walked down the back side of Swayambu thinking that we would stop and buy some iodine or alcohol for the wound. But there was the strike. Nothing was open, no drugstore nor clinic, not anything. That is when I became very sad. I was thinking of you, and of your father, and I began to cry. Bishow thought that I was in pain, but I wasn't. I was just very, very sad that I might not be able to get back to my family and be the healthy mother that I was when I left. I was sad because I missed you terribly. We walked for more than an hour back to the hotel, hoping that something might be open. But nothing was open. When I got to the hotel, I ordered a whiskey and poured it on my leg. Every thing turned out fine. I returned home with my treasures to sell and here I am to tell the tale.

And the moral of the story is that sometimes you just have to spank the one-eyed monkey.

All true. I swear.